Companies Whose Names Have Been Genericized

✔ Band-Aid
✔ Dumpster
✔ Kleenex
✔ Google
✔ Jell-O
✔ Legos
✔ Photoshop
✔ Q-Tip
✔ Thermos
✔ Uber
✔ Velcro
✔ Xerox

What’s Wrong With This Sentence?

“Much has and will continue to be said about...”

Broken down, this sentence technically means

1. Much has said about...


2. Much will continue to be said about ...

While the reader understands the point, the grammar is wrong.

If I were editing this, I’d rewrite it as follows:

“Much has been said, and much will continue to be said, about...”

Can a Good Writer Write Anything?

I’m republishing this commentary by Paul Stregevsky, which he wrote in response to an article that argued most tech writers can only do tech writing.

Yes, Carl: We writers are one-trick ponies.

That’s why Shakespeare wrote such second-rate sonnets.

Why humorist Gene Weingarten didn’t deserve his Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.

Why lawyer Scott Turow failed at crafting legal thrillers.

Why nonfiction writers Twain, Orwell, and E.B. White gave us such forgettable fiction as Tom Sawyer, 1984, and Charlotte’s Web.

Why scientists Stephen Gould, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson were such failed popularizers.

Why Oscar Hammerstein III and Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote such memorable plays (Oklahoma, My Fair Lady), wrote such forgettable lyrics.

The Power of Denominalization

Upon completion of a PWP course, you’ll know to write with vigor.

After completing a PWP course, you’ll know to write with vigor.

The 4 Kinds of Subheadings in Writing

You Can Change an Entire Debate by Simply Using a Different Word

In the Old Days
tax avoidance
tax efficiency
revenue enhancements
tax cuts
tax relief
estate tax
death tax
The Affordable Care Act
government takeover
public school
government school
nuclear codes
nuclear bombs
financial stability package
Democratic Party
Democrat Party
greenhouse gases
rising temperatures
extreme weather
renewable energy
clean energy
dried plums
dolphin fish
mahi mahi
Patagonian toothfish
Chilean sea bass
Department of War
Department of Defense
enhanced interrogation
correctional center
safety check
used car
certified, pre-owned or factory-renewed
pet owner
pet parent
low-income or disadvantaged
curvy or thick
corporate raider
activist investor
junk bonds
high-yield bonds
Job Titles
executive assistant
Job Titles
custodial engineer
Job Titles
hospital corpsman
The Workplace
The Workplace
fire people
increase efficiencies

For more examples — and how you can create them for your own line of work — check out my media-training workshop.

Is “sales” singular or plural?

Which of these sentences is correct?

1. What does sales have to do with copywriting?

2. What do sales have to do with copywriting?

Because Merriam-Webster doesn’t specify whether “sales” is singular or plural, I turned to my colleague Paul Stregevsky for guidance.

Paul says that #2 (where “sales” is treated as plural) is correct. That’s because “sales” is the semantic subject.

Semantic who?

Apparently, there’s a distinction between “semantics” and “syntactics.” (I'd never heard of this either.)

Happily, Paul explains by way of examples:

Syntactic Subjects

* Sales is a dwindling occupation.

Semantic Subjects

* Sales are climbing.

* What does sales have to do with copywriting?

Omit Needless Words

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

—William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style

The Semantics of Dieting

People no longer want to talk about ‘‘dieting’’ and ‘‘weight loss.’’ They want to become ‘‘healthy’’ so they can be ‘‘fit.’’ They want to ‘‘eat clean’’ so they can be ‘‘strong.’’

Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age

Is there a difference between “Hot Not to Bomb” and “How to Not Bomb”?

Which phrase is better, I asked my colleague Paul Stregevsky? He replied as follows:

Grammatically, of course, both are fine. They mean the same thing. It’s just a matter of where to place the emphasis.

Nine out of 10 professional writers would probably prefer “how not to bomb”; it seems to call more attention to “not.”

Democratic. Democrat

Calling someone a “Democrat Senator” is insulting; it means he’s overly liberal.

Calling someone a “Democratic Senator” is descriptive; it means he’s a member of the Democratic Party.

Keep the Verb Close to the Subject

Which sentence sounds better?

1. “The module will pass, from Google to Facebook, personal data about health, income, and eligibility.”

2. “The module will take personal data from Google about health, income, and eligibility and pass it to Facebook.”

If you said #1, you’re correct. But can you identify why?

I’ll leave it to Richard Lauchman, author of Plain Style: Techniques for Simple, Concise, Emphatic Business Writing, to explain:

“Reveal the verb early. The reader hungers for the verb. She holds her breath until the verb arrives, because until it arrives she has no sense of what the overall expression is about. Try not to separate the verb from the subject; put those words as close together as you can.”


“People are piecemealing a living together.”

Abbreviations Have Nothing to Do With Informality

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

Abbreviate for Clarity, Not As a Rule

Many people say (because someone once said it to them) that abbreviations of any sort make your writing informal. Such a remark doesn’t get us anywhere; it merely opens the door to endless philosophical debate. And there is never a victor in a conflict about “formality” because definitions vary wildly.

What we want is writing that fits the occasion and the readership — and whether it’s “formal” or “informal” by any individual’s definition should not be a concern. Our primary concern should be clarity; the next should be economy.

Because documents vary in their conventions of style, commandments such as “It’s always best to avoid abbreviations” and “It’s always best to abbreviate” are equally oversimplified. If I were you, I wouldn’t get caught up in considerations of formality when I’m trying to decide whether to abbreviate. I encourage you to behave practically. Abbreviate when doing so would not distract, when the abbreviated form is what the reader is used to, and when the abbreviation would save the reader time.

For Example

When the abbreviation is what we’re used to, the spelled-out version can be puzzling. Many people who have never heard of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have a good sense of what OSHA does. Isn’t it true that IBM is more familiar to you than International Business Machines Corporation? Isn't it true that NASA makes sense to you more quickly than National Aeronautics and Space Administration? Formality is not the concern here. Clarity is.

We conventionally use a.m. and p.m., for example, and if someone actually wrote six ante meridiem or four post meridiem, we would have to ponder the meaning — and then we would wonder what was wrong with him.

How to Use a Colon to Introduce a List

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

When you use a colon to introduce a list, make sure to write a complete thought first. In other words, don’t write something like this:

“Next year we must increase crease our marketing in: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southern regions.”

Instead, your lead-in should be a complete thought, like this:

“Next year, we must increase our marketing in three regions: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the South.”

Notice how the complete sentence does a much better job of helping the reader anticipate how the expression will end?

A few more examples:

•   Today we will discuss two topics: executive compensation and shareholder rights.

•   She visited four countries: Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy.

•   We have only three options: reduce the bid, increase the scope of work, or abandon the proposal.

When Should You Use a Hyphen?

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

1. Break the Rule When Doing So Helps Your Reader

Nearly all authorities say you shouldn’t hyphenate compound adjectives when the first word is comparative or superlatives: “most favored nation” or “less developed countries.”

Break this rule when your meaning requires it. In the sentence below, taken from the New York Times, notice how lower-ranking is handled:

“The only other figure from the Bush White House to have been convicted of a serious crime is Donald McGonegal, a lower-ranking official who has been sentenced to 18 months in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.”

Even though readers would probably get this meaning, the hyphen enables them to get it a little more quickly.

2. Know Your Audience

Phrases like spread spectrum analysis and frequency hopping system require no hyphen at FCC because they have become terms of art among communications engineers. If, however, you’re writing to a nonexpert audience, then you’re encouraged to hyphenate spread-spectrum and frequency-hopping.

3. Value Clarity Above All Else

It’s better to use a hyphen when the rules say you shouldn’t than to omit one when the reader needs it. Your readers don’t care about the rules of hyphenation. They care about clarity. I encourage you to hyphenate whenever doing so helps prevent ambiguity or facilitates understanding.

The compound adjectives below all begin with superlatives (which by rule aren’t supposed to require a hyphen), but the reader benefits when you hyphenate because he sees your intention a little more quickly. That is what we want.

•   the best-case scenario
•   the best-kept secret
•   the least-recognized fact
•   the worst-conceived plan
•   the least-annoying error
•   the weirdest-rule award


jackpot (v): to allow an issue to fester, and then dump it on someone all at once

“You jackpotted me!”



“Axe is gonna bonus you $1.5 — minimum.”


medium-size. medium-sized

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Neil S. Serven replied.

Q: Is it “medium-size,” or “medium-sized”? I know you’re unable to say which one is correct; are you able to say which one is more common?

A: Our citation database shows a slight preference for –size, but the sample isn’t huge.

You’ve Been Making This Grammatical Mistake Your Whole Life Without Realizing It

Here’s the sentence:

“I’m one of those lucky people whose job is an extension of his hobby.”

What’s wrong with it?

Nothing, at least upon first reading.

But as my colleague and brilliant wordsmith, Paul Stregevsky, patiently explained to me, the sentence should be,

“I’m one of those lucky people whose jobs are extensions of their hobbies.”

Huh? (If you have that same reaction, rest assured, you’re in good company.)

Take it away, Paul:

Consider these two sentences, if they were uttered by Melania Trump:

1. I’m one of those women who sometimes wants to murder my husband. (Not grammatical.)

2. I’m one of those women who sometimes want to murder their husbands. (Grammatical.)

3. I’m one of those women who sometimes wants to murder her husband. (Not grammatical.)

4. I’m one of those women who sometimes want to murder my husband. (Grammatical.)

Mind you, sentence 1 is not grammatical. But let’s imagine it were. Do you understand why sentence 1 means something radically different from the meaning she intended?

Sentence 1, if it were grammatical, would have to mean, “Like many women, I sometimes want to murder Donald Trump.” And that's not what you intended, is it?

Sentence 2 means, “Many women sometimes want to murder their own husbands. I, do, too.”

Sentence 3 is a blend of the two: It’s faithful to the grammatical number of sentence 1 and the grammatical person intended by sentence 2. In effect, it splits the difference. But it, too, would be grammatically wrong.

Let’s try it again, with a more perverted scenario:

Sentence 1: I’m one of those dads who sometimes imagines banging my daughter.

Sentence 2: I’m one of those dads who sometimes imagines banging their daughters.

In sentence 1, are you trying to say that many dads want to bang your daughter? Because that’s what it must mean.

Here’s another example:

“I’m a change agent who rolls up my sleeves to get things done.”

Grammatically, the sentence should be,

“I’m a change agent who rolls up his sleeves to get things done.”

Again, here’s Paul:

Well, what a coincidence: I, too, am a change agent who rolls up Jonathan Rick’s sleeves to get things done.

At least, that’s what your wording suggests is possible.

The singular vs. plural choice is merely an artifact of the first-person vs. third-person choice. Once we establish that the grammatical number is driven by whatever agent is doing the rolling up (people), we must follow through and complete the sentence in the same grammatical person (third/he).

In other words: The pronoun must be third-person (“her sleeves”), not first (“my sleeves”).

Latino. Hispanic

“Latino” has to do with geography, while “Hispanic” has to do with language.

“Latino” means from Latin America, while “Hispanic” means from a Spanish-speaking country.

So Brazilians are Latino but not Hispanic (because they speak Portuguese).

[No Excuses: Immigration - Skimm’tionary]

How a Comma Killed Tiffany Trump

In a recent tweet, our new president wrote:

Sadly, Trump knows nothing about grammar. If he did, he’d have written:

“My daughter Tiffany” (without the comma).



“My daughter Tiffany” means he has multiple daughters, whereas “My daughter, Tiffany” means he has only one.

Commas can kill.

Here’s another example:

“If you’re like to meet my friend, Susan, please join us for dinner.”

means I have only one friend.


“If you’d like to meet my friend Susan, please join for us dinner.”

means Susan is one of my friends.

reposition. diminish

Mr. Baquet and Mr. Kahn said the shift to digital publishing demanded a “smaller and more focused newsroom.”

They added that the reconfiguration should be viewed as “a necessary repositioning of the Times’s newsroom, not as a diminishment.”

New York Times Study Calls for Rapid Change in Newsroom

refurbish. modernize

“We refurbished our weapons to make them safer and more reliable,” Mr. Moniz said, choosing his words with precision. “We didn’t modernize.”

Modernization, he said, “is what Russia is doing and China is doing,” which, he acknowledged, could jeopardize Mr. Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

“Learning Curve” As Rick Perry Pursues a Job He Initially Misunderstood

Why Typos Matter

Because this:

“He put a little distance between himself and his brother.”

means the opposite of this:

“He put little distance between himself and his brother.”

All because of a one-letter word.

Related: Why Typos Matter

Is This a Dangling Modifier?

I recently asked language expert Paul Stregevsky the following question:

Q: Press critic Jack Shafer recently wrote, “Grown fond of Kelly in the evening, will they really switch to Kelly in the afternoon?”

I completely understand what Shafer is saying, but, from a strict grammatical viewpoint, isn’t this an example of a dangling modifier? Shouldn’t the first word after the comma refer to the viewers — something like this:

“Grown fond of Kelly in the evening, they may not readily switch to Kelly in the afternoon.”

A: ​I have asked myself this question many times! Without consulting Garner, I would say that the answer is this:

Technically, it is not a dangling modifier​ because “they” is the grammatical subject.

But, to a careful reader, this construction can disrupt expectations in the same way as a dangling modifier! It looks like a dangler and reads like a dangler.

It’s better avoided. But personally, I would probably use it, then smugly defend it when challenged. :)

Do you know the difference between “forego” and “forgo”?

Now you do, thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s Style and Substance column:

forego: to go before

forgo: to abstain from

When Adjectives Become Nouns

“Still another bugbear arises whenever common usage employs a word as a different part of speech from the one we are accustomed to. Above and following are now frequently used as nouns whereas they previously were adjectives, and there has been a great deal of hubbub about that development ... But such conversions are not unusual: In medicine we have prophylactics and sedatives, in military life we have privates, regulars and offensives, and more recently in broadcasting we have documentaries, visuals and specials. The list could go on and on. Nor would it be confined to the conversion of adjectives into nouns. It is just as common to find nouns doing duty as adjectives, beginning with such inconspicuous ones as rail road and stock yard and going on to population explosion and atom bomb agreement. The conversions are not always felicitous, but they cannot be forbidden as a class.”

Theodore Bernstein

You’ve Been Using These Words Wrong, and You Didn’t Even Know It!

When we use the verb spike, it means something has risen sharply, and then fallen. We sometimes misuse it to refer to an increase.

Similarly, dip means a decline followed by a rise, not just a decline.

Thanks, Wall Street Journal!

On Qualifying Sweeping Statements

“Grand claims are qualified in ways that result in accurate, if sometimes awkward, phrase-making. Clinton wanted to set a goal in his 2000 State of the Union address of making America the safest country in the world. He had to settle for the ‘safest big country in the world’; senior policy advisers warned that the United States was never going to top little Iceland or Denmark.”

Jeff Shesol

Teachers! Please don’t make your students use synonyms for “said,” he opined

Take it away, Gabriel Roth:

“Replacing the word ‘said’ with ‘colorful’ or ‘lively’ synonyms is a ubiquitous symptom of bad writing. Individual instances are usually redundancies: ‘I’ll never cheat again!’ is recognizable as a promise without ‘he vowed’ after it. But a procession of ‘she explained’ and ‘he chuckled’ and ‘I expostulated’ — the reporting verbs that clog your dialogue when you follow the ‘never say said’ rule — is worse, because they force the reader’s attention away from the content of the writing and onto the writer’s hunt for synonyms ... Successful writing modulates the lavishness of its diction for effect, rather than cranking the dial all the way to maximum floridity and leaving it there.”

Aaron Sorkin Explains Why Profanity Is Sometimes Necessary

“Rhythmically, and for other reasons too, the line should be, ‘Put together an American military response scenario that doesn’t make me think we’re docking somebody’s Goddamn allowance.’ ‘Somebody’s damn allowance’ — there is just a hitch in that that’s wrong, and I could not come up with a two-syllable invective at all.”

Aaron Sorkin

Why Journalists Are Better Writers Than Professors (It’s Not Their Fault)

“One reason journalists write well is that journalists write for money: They write for readers. Historically, under the system of scholarly publishing—academic journals and university presses—scholars write for nothing. They have been able to afford to do this because they are paid salaries by the universities that employ them. (Academics rarely meet deadlines because their failure to meet them seldom has any consequence; in this way, too, they are not treated like writers.) And, while academic journals and university presses like to have readers who will pay for what they publish, they have been able to do without them; their publications have been subsidized by the universities that house them. University publishing has suited both scholars who need to publish and presses whose mission is to publish them. It has not rewarded clarity or beauty or timeliness, and it has not made a priority of satisfying readers or earning profits because it was not designed to do any of these things: it was designed to advance scholarship.”

Jill Lepore

The Power of Punctuation

An English professor wrote the following sentence on a chalkboard in class, and asked his students to punctuate it:

“A woman without her man is nothing.”

All the males wrote:

“A woman, without her man, is nothing.”

All the females wrote:

“A woman: without her, man is nothing.”


grok (v): to understand profoundly and intuitively

I strive to grok what differentiates good writing from bad writing.

The Semantics of Interviewing

“The phrase ‘told the Wall Street Journal’ (or ‘told’ another Dow Jones entity) still slips in here and there, but herewith is a reminder that we are to avoid the phrase, which can come off as self-serving to readers. It is redundant if the article already makes it clear that the person said something to us. Speaking of which, we don’t even need to say ‘in an interview’ if that is clear in context.”

The Wall Street Journal

How Do You Pronounce “GIF”?

The majority favors a hard “G” sound, as in “good,” but a vocal minority, including the inventor, insists the “G” is soft, as Jif peanut butter. The Oxford English Dictionary says either is fine.

The 9 Worst Cliches in PR

Via Shawn Paul Wood.

1. At the End of the Day. Let’s just wait until the sun goes down, and maybe Dracula or the Werewolf can kill the next person who says this doltish idiom.

2. Innovate. Since we are so big on this word, how about we please innovate another word that means “my client makes really cool stuff.”

3. Drill Down. Do you work in the petrochemical field? Fancy fracking much? What about a carpentry? Unless you plan to use said power tool, let go of this phrase.

4. Solution. This word is actually important when used correctly, because it’s fairly accurate and descriptive. Unfortunately, it doesn’t solve the need to consultant a thesaurus.

5. Stakeholder. At first, this mysterious person had a stake in the plan. Then, it was a share or a stake, because who knows?! Now, it’s like a bottlenecker driving next to a wreck.

6. Leader. We get it. Journalists get it too. You can’t say your client is “the best” because that sounds too haughty, so masking it as near the front of the pack will help. Only, it never does.

7. Take It Offline. You do realize you we were never online, right? Unless you’re having a chat via IM or Skype, just unplug it.

8. Low-Hanging Fruit. For the love of God, can we simply break this twig so that fruit can roll on down the hill and stop hanging. Set it free already.

9. Open the Kimono. Evidently, there is a rather large and spunky nudist colony in Kyoto because a few PR firms have been fascinated with someone’s private parts. Can we put a full-length trenchcoat on, please?

Fused Participle

Q: Which is correct:

“I appreciate you thinking of me.”


“I appreciate your thinking of me.”

A: “Your thinking of me” is always right. It’s both grammatically correct and stylistically preferred.

I was about to add that “you thinking of me” is always wrong—that is, it’s always ungrammatical and always “works less well” stylistically. But I just looked up the question in Garner’s Modern American Usage, and I’m only 80% right.

“You thinking of me” is called a fused participle. Garner says, “The possessive ought to be used whenever it is not unidiomatic or unnatural.” But he goes on to provide examples where the possessive would sound unnatural.

Don’t Call Terrorists “Masterminds”

“We agree with a recent column in Politico that mastermind when applied to terrorists is overused. Whether used for drama or just out of habit, the term is a cliché and also gives more credit to the terrorists than they usually deserve for their actions, which are certainly planned but hardly the stuff of genius or ‘extraordinary intellect,’ which is the dictionary meaning. People who direct the bombings and shootings can just as easily be called planners, leaders, ringleaders, organizers, plotters or directors of them.”

The Wall Street Journal

20 Masterfully Punny Tweets That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud

1. I’m writing a movie about horses with attitude. Its name: Straight Outta Clomptown

2. “You have to look at the big picture.” —Aggressive museum guard

3. *Submits manuscript to publisher.*

“Sir, is this a drawing of two pie charts having sex?”

“No, it’s a draft of my new graph-fuck novel.”

4. Headline about Chris Rock’s divorce:

Rock’s Papers Scissor Union

5. What idiot called him Alexander Graham Bell instead of the Lord of the Rings?

6. It was the busta rhymes, it was the wursta rhymes.

7. And good Jovi to you, sir.

8. “What should we call this thing in the ocean that is land?”

“How about island?”

“Seems too obvious.”

“What if we pronounced it weird?”


9. Welcome to Plastic Surgery Addicts Anonymous. I see a lot of new faces in the room this week, and I’m very disappointed with you all.”

10. Hey, thanks for defining the word “many” for me. It means a lot.

11. I’ll never forget where I was the day I figured out how to read maps.

12. Kanye West is opening a breakfast restaurant. Its name: Omelette You Finish.

13. Why are they called “territorial disputes” and not “ground beef”?

14. What idiot named them “jet skis” instead of “boatercycles”?

15. John Wilkes Photo Booth takes amazing headshots.

16. I sneezed, and someone responded by giving me a pair of those glasses with the fake nose and mustache attached. It was a blessing in disguise.

17. And the award for best neckwear goes to... Well, would you look at that—it’s a tie.

18. What idiot called it “car repair” instead of “autocorrect”?

19. “I piy the fool!” —Missed a “T”

20. What idiot called it a “vet” instead of “dogtor”?


not only, but also

Q: I was taught, or read, that when you start a sentence with “not only,” the subsequent “but” needs to be accompanied by an “also.” So: “Not only X, but also Y.”

Yet two recent examples, from high-profile publications, omit the “also”:

1. John Heilemann, “Bush’s Big Bomb,” Bloomberg Politics, October 29, 2015:

“What the night required of him, what everyone was watching for, was a demonstration that, despite the myriad troubles that have plagued him months, he could still be the guy: the candidate with the performance skills and the fortitude not just to survive but to thrive under pressure.”

2. Michael Kinsley, “The Courage to Act,” New York Times Sunday Book Review, October 8, 2015:

“If the government stood by and did nothing, the result would be catastrophic not just for those directly involved but for the entire economy.”

What say you?

A: Garner just wrote about this in his October 22 daily tip:

These correlative conjunctions must frame syntactically identical sentence parts—e.g.: “It not only will save construction costs but also the cost of land acquisition and demolition.” Donna Leslie, “Stadium Belongs on the Riverfront,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 23 Nov. 1997, at D3. (A possible revision: “It will save not only construction costs but also the cost of land acquisition and demolition.” The conjunctions correctly frame two noun phrases.)

One common issue in “not only” constructions is whether it’s permissible to omit the “also” after “but.” The answer is yes, the result being a casualism—e.g.: “[Perret] seeks to secure Grant’s reputation not only as a successful general but as a military genius.” Eric Foner, “The Very Good Soldier,” New York Times, 7 Sept. 1997, Section 7, at 13. So how do you decide whether to include “also” (which will always result in a correct construction)? It’s merely a matter of euphony and formality: let your ear and your sense of natural idiom help you decide in a given sentence.

Another way to complete the construction is “not only . . . but . . . as well.” But a writer who uses this phrasing should not add “also,” which is redundant with “as well”—e.g.: “Feminist methods and insights [must] be adopted not only by female scholars, but also by males as well.” J.M. Balkin, “Turandot’s Victory,” 2 Yale J. Law and Humanities 299, 302 (1990). In that sentence, “also” should have been omitted.

No comma is usually needed between the “not only” and “but also” elements, and—as the last citation above shows—to put one in merely introduces an awkward break.

Addendum (12/27/2015): Here’s another example, from the New Yorker, that temple of godly grammar:

3. Anthony Lane, “Doing the Right Thing,” New Yorker, November 9, 2015:

“To stop them turning, in the interests of justice, takes not only guts but imagination.”

Addendum (1/19/2016): From Slate:

4. Will Oremus, “Who Controls Your Facebook Feed,” Slate, January 3, 2016:

“Facebook’s news feed algorithm has shaped not only what we read and how we keep in touch, but how the media frame stories to catch our attention.”

Addendum (2/12/2016): From Time:

5. Nancy Gibbs and Callie Schweitzer, “Meet Motto, Time’s New Site for Advice Worth Sharing,” Time, February 11, 2016:

“They are drawn not only to Time’s coverage of the world but increasingly to Time’s content on how to live a richer, smarter, more meaningful life—how to negotiate a raise, how to manage your inbox, how to actually unplug on vacation.”

communications. communication

In August, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Assistant Editor Emily Vezina replied. (If you can figure this out, youre smarter than I am.)

Q: Can you help me understand the difference between “communications” and “communication,” and when to use which?

For example, do I work in the field of strategic “communications,” or strategic “communication”? Do I help clients polish their “communications” skills, or their “communication” skills? Do I run a digital “communications” firm, or a digital “communication” firm?

I came across this article, but don’t quite understand its explanation—other than that there’s a big difference between these two words, and that I should know it.

A: “Communication” often refers to the simple exchange of information and ideas between people. Here are a few examples from two of our websites ( and

  • There was a breakdown in communication between members of the group
  • Parents need to have good communication with their children [they need to be able to understand and be understood by their children]
  • nonverbal communication
  • communication problems/skills
  • from many college/university websites, some form of “Department of Communication and Journalism”

“Communications” (plural) is typically used to describe the following:

  • the field of study of how information is sent to people using technology
  • He majored in communications. (NB: More and more colleges and universities seem to be using the singular to name the department that teachers this subject matter, but I am still seeing more examples of “communications major” rather than “communication major”)
  • the actual technology and ways of sending information
  • radio/wireless/electronic communications
  • a communications satellite (a satellite that is used to send signals for television, radio, etc., to people around the world)
  • the office or personnel at a school or business that is in charge of communicating information to the larger world outside of the organization

An example is Harvard’s Public Affairs and Communications (HPAC) office. Here is the description of their role from their website:

“Harvard Public Affairs and Communications manages and facilitates the University’s relationships with neighboring communities; local, state, and federal government; the media; and the general public. HPAC advances information and communications related to the University’s mission of excellence in teaching, learning, and research through a variety of managed channels and other means including the University’s homepage, the Harvard Gazette, and Harvard’s Information Center.”

Notice the use of “communications” in the description of HPAC. To complicate matters further, “communication” singular can refer to a message or an instance of communicating. It can, therefore, be used in the plural (as it is here) as well as in the singular.

As for your direct questions about your business, without knowing the context of what you do, your individual questions are difficult to answer. If your clients are individual people, I would say that that you help clients polish their communication skills. If your clients are institutions of some kind (schools, businesses, etc.), I’d use “communications skills.” The same basic concept applies to the other two issues as well.

The Rules of English Are Meant to Be a Guide, Not a Straightjacket

Daisy, why don’t you come home with us, and live with me and Colleen for a while?

Colleen and me.

Colleen and me.

What’s your aversion to proper grammar?

Rhythm, maybe.

Leaves of Grass

think. believe

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Jennifer N. Cislo replied.

Q: A friend once insisted that “believe” and “think” carry different implications. For example:

If I “believe” that cats are better than dogs, she argued, I suspect it’s true. But if I “think” that cats are better than dogs, I’m certain it’s true.

Is there any truth to this distinction? If not, are the verbs completely interchangeable?

A: A person could parse out these subtleties of meaning. However, for the most part, these words are used by English speakers interchangeably.

In other words, it could be argued that “believe” means “to think it so” without the certainty of the word “think.” But it can also be argued, for instance, if someone were to say “I think it’s spelled that way,” that the someone is saying they “suspect” that’s the correct spelling.

ought. should

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Editorial Assistant Serenity Carr replied.

Q: Is there any real difference between should and ought? If I tell you that you “ought” clean the house, does that imply the same level of suggestion or seriousness as if I told you that you “should” clean the house?

A: The auxiliaries ought and should are both entered in our dictionaries with usage notes. Ought is “used to express moral obligation, duty, or necessity,” and should is “used . . . to express duty, obligation, necessity, propriety, or expediency.”

The following is found in the synonym discussion at ought in our Unabridged Dictionary:

Ought and should are often interchangeable and imply the compulsion of obligation, ought more commonly suggesting duty or moral constraint, should applying more to the obligation of fitness, propriety, or expediency.”

Brilliant Speeches From the Movies

Thanks to my friend Kevin for identifying and describing these.

1. Star Trek
The famous—or infamous—“risk is our business” speech from William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, delivered in his patented halting, staccato, rapid burst delivery.

2. War and Remembrance
Sir John Gielgud, as Aaron Jastrow, recounts the story of Job to Jews imprisoned Jews at Thiersenstadt (“the paradise ghetto”), most of whom were shipped to Nazi concentration camps and gassed.

3. The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling’s closing narration to the famous Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

4. The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling’s closing narration to the famous Twilight Zone episode, “Walking Distance.”